In October 2019, Canada held a federal election in which Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ran for a second term. Despite his best intentions, Trudeau failed to secure enough seats to form a parliamentary majority and had to lead a minority government through a pandemic which has taken (at time of writing) about 27,000 Canadian lives. Riding high on his relative COVID-19 success, Trudeau called a snap general election in mid-August to be held on September 20th. What can the state of the race, at this relatively early point, teach us about the state of the left in the Imperial Core, and what lessons should leftist Canadians, Americans, Brits and Europeans take from the Campaign?
Canada’s geo-political makeup could be compared to the UK. The centre-left (the NDP and to a lesser ideological extent the Liberals) occupy the North as well as the Capital, and the right wing hold the South and the West. There is a huge civic nationalist force which has gained ground in the last few decades, and may lead to a huge fracturing of the nation. This could mean Canada could serve as a weather forecast for what could be on the horizon in the UK, and if it isn’t it still is interesting and relevant to global political discussion.
The demise of the Canadian Conservative Party has been one of the most interesting political transformations in modern times. Canada’s most historically famous modern Tory has been Brian Mulroney, PM of Canada between 1984 and 1993. Mulroney was leader of the Progressive Canadian Party, a liberal-conservative party which was the largest centre-right party in Canada for over half a century. Mulroney was economically very much in the same vein as Thatcher and Reagan, a neoliberal ending the Postwar Consensus and reforming the economy to a more neoliberal model. However
Mulroney was a more socially liberal character than his conservative counterparts, trying to fight climate breakdown from a centrist perspective through the passing of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. His downfall came when many Canadians felt he had overstayed his term during the early 1990s, when the economy declined, at a time when Thatcher and Reagan had already resigned or left office. Kim Campbell was subsequently elected leader, but badly lost the election later that year for two reasons. The first was her mishandling of the economy, stating that the crisis would be over by the ‘end of the century’, a sentiment not many Canadians wanted to hear. The second was her brutal political campaigning, painting her Liberal opponent Jean Chretien. One depicted Chretien’s face, stunted on one side due to a physical deformity, asking whether that was a face Canadians should trust. Yikes.
Needless to say, the Progressive Conservatives lost the election, starting the election with 156 seats and finishing the race with just two. It has been described as one of the mightiest defeats by any political party of all time. Chretien was then swept into office, a ‘left neoliberal’ in the mold of Blair and Clinton, accepting of Mulroney’s economic changes but wishing to humanise the laissez-faire economic system. The Conservatives went on something of a political wilderness during the following period, eventually merging with the new right populist Reform Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada. From 2006-2015, they were in office under Steven Harper, originally from the Reform wing. Harper was a controversial PM, an imperialist hawk and traditional rightist, often wrapped in some or another scandal. Harper ran in the 2015 Election, losing badly to Justin Trudeau, seen as a progressive change from the ageing Tory.
The Conservatives have now elected Erin O’Toole to be its leader, a political hodgepodge. O’Toole addressed his party in March, at the
CPoC’s virtual conference, setting out his policy vision under the slogan ‘Secure the Future’. O’Toole is in favour of LGBT+ rights, including trans rights, and is the first CPoC leader to call himself pro-choice, a major internal CPoC issue since its founding. O’Toole has supported action on climate change, claiming that the ‘debate is over’ on whether humans cause planetary warming. He even backs a Carbon Tax, something not embraced by the UK Labour Party. This all sounds quite politically liberal, however he is opposed to lockdowns and is conservative on racial issues. Economically, he is a conservative, however he embraces the rhetoric of ‘the few’ and ‘working people’. He has proposed ‘Canada’s Recovery Plan’, investing and bringing investment into the economy to eliminate unemployment.
Rhetorically, O’Toole’s March speech was littered in certain references which caught me off guard. The repetition of ‘secure’ certainly played to a conservative impulse around national pride, and the phrase ‘securing a strong future for our children’ could’ve had Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing over it.
However, despite O’Tooles hopes, the Conservatives will not win this election. Trudeau will. Let me explain.
Justin Trudeau has had a rough time over the last couple of years. Firstly, he was mired in economic sleaze allegations, now being seized upon by O’Toole and others. Secondly, his frequent wearing of blackface has been commented upon for hours on end in the media. Thirdly, as a by product of the first two, he almost lost the election and had to lead a minority government throughout COVID-19, uprisings around racial issues, a mass shooting and now the discovery of mass graves of indigenous people, most of them children with the blame
lying on the Catholic Church and the Federal Government. But with all of this in mind, it looks like he will win the Federal Election.
The Liberal Party of Canada is running on a campaign of patriotism and national pride. In a popular broadcast on the Liberal website entitled ‘Pull Together’, Trudeau said ‘Canadians always show up for each other, together we helped families and businesses get through the pandemic, we made sure vaccines were available for everyone, and we worked as a team to keep our loved ones healthy and safe, we pulled together when it was needed the most, because that’s how we accomplish big things.’ This patriotic message is very appealing to the electorate of Canada, and the polls (mostly) are in Liberal favour.
Canada, too, has a large separatist voice, much like the UK. The Bloc Québécois is a party designed to fight for Quebec’s independence, due to the large number of French Canadians living there. Much like the SNP in the UK, the Bloc is social democratic and wishes to see a regulated form of state capitalism in place within independent Quebec. Also like the SNP, they are on the rise, gaining twenty two seats in the 2019 ballot. However, Trudeau has made inroads with French Canadians throughout the campaign and during the fight with COVID-19.
The closest thing Canada has to the Labour left is the NDP, led by Jagmeet Singh. The NDP try to paint themselves as radicals and socialists, but in my view they occupy the Ed Miliband ground of Canadian politics, the ‘soft left’, with leftist influences but centrist conclusions. The NDP are the only major party thus far to publish their full list of policies, so it’s easier to determine their positions. The NDP support climate action, proportional representation, interest free student loans, nationalising vaccine production, raising the federal minimum wage to $20 per hour, a wealth tax and the abolition of the
Senate, the undemocratic upper chamber of the Canadian Parliament. I doubt the NDP will make an impact, however Singh is now the most popular of any party leader across Canada.
All of the above represent the mainstream political parties in Canada, aside from the Greens who are not worth discussing as they will no doubt collapse amid allegations of antisemitism, and the People’s Party, a nationalistic, slightly xenophobic populist radical right party led by opportunistic former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier.
In all of this, there is an obvious comparison to the US’ political spectrum, and where the UK may be going. Canada may well represent the paradigm shift occurring across the world. The Conservatives have fallen asleep with power, and a new generation of technocratic marketeer social Liberals have taken the reins over power. We can see this with the rise of Trudeau and the fall of Harper, as well as Trump’s demise amid scandal, insurrection and heavy defeat, leading to a Democratic victory with Biden (but actually Kamala Harris) at the helm. Could something similar happen in the UK? Possibly. I think that Boris Johnson’s populist economic libertarianism with authoritarian social characteristics could be a powder keg. If Keir Starmer can make up some of the ground lost in the 2019 General Election and 2021 Local Elections, a centrist force could command British politics. The political left has been left vacant, leaving a gap in the Canadian political market, a gap I also see in the US, and across Europe since the demise of SYRIZA and the rightward shift in PODEMOS.
Where’s the gap in the market in Canada and across the world then?
Put simply, there’s no proper lefties! If Canada, and the world more generally, is to wake up from this long slumber of global ineptitude, led
by crony corporate Liberals like Justin Trudeau, to the right of even Tony Blair, and dwindling, ever splitting and melting Conservatives like Erin O’Toole, a genuinely socialist anti-imperialist group must be created, or our existing political parties, like the Labour Party in the UK must be transformed into a socialist force, advocating for a worker-led economy which works for the many, not just the few. In New Zealand, Peru, Venezuela, potentially Brazil and many more, they have already tried transforming centre-left parties into socialist ones, or creating new leftist groupings, to fantastic effect.
Canadian people, realise your power and do something that matters, and preserves a radical future in which we can all believe and share!